Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Billion Cultures? Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Jan is a Czech Catholic 
Medical student.  Probably
not the first person you'd
ask about Muslim merchants
on Zanzibar... but he just
might surprise you.
The fact is we're concerned about losing the predictability of exoticism. We recently had at least the theoretical guarantee that if we go here and there we will experience this and that, a guarantee that is all but vanished. But even many of the most experienced travelers still take for granted the explosion of (totally unpredictable) diversity and novelty around every human corner.

When in history could you bump into a young girl born to a Brazilian father (he was part Portuguese) and a Philippine mother (she was part American) who was born in Thailand and raised in Japan? I met this girl, she has blue eyes and dark skin, and could translate for her parents in each of these languages except Thai, the language on the front of her passport. What good does it do to ask "where are you from?" What is her culture? Her native language? Her home? She's something new, maybe unique, a direct product of globalization and impossible perhaps only 50 years ago. Her lifestyle, personal identity, and perspective on the world are bound to be fascinating and as worthy of exploration as any "authentic" pigmy tribe or lost civilization.     
Mario is Spanish, with a fascination for Sikh culture and
fashion, even here in the deserts of Rajasthan. 
Anachronistic? Sure! Unique and interesting? I think so!
 When I ask a Dutchman (well, half Spanish and born in America (US passport) but raised in Amsterdam) who has lived his entire adult live in Vietnam what he thinks about the disappearance of tulips in Holland, what sense will it make? The question is based on the assumption that when he tells me he's from Holland, that he is informed and concerned about all things I consider "Dutch."
All over Japan you can see a bizarre
cultural transfusion. It's all about
cartoon characters, yes, but
charaters borrowed from all over
the world, from French Maids to
American High School students.
All imitated and emulated by an
otherwise mono-cultural society. 
Even I, who fit pretty well into the American "box," can't deliver an explanation of the latest Hollywood movie, US election, war, fashion innovation, or newest slang. I constantly disappoint people who are excited to speak to an "American," who haven't realized that these definitions are breaking down. However, if you want to talk about chopsticks, the Ganges River, wildebeest migrations, or the Velvet Revolution, I'm your man. For the place(s) I come from, the languages I speak, the things I know about, and the things I'm interested in, I'm pretty confident in saying I'm unique too, a product of globalization, certainly not impossible 50 years ago, but very unlikely. Sure, something is being lost as the world mixes together, but something unprecedented and exciting is being gained.
Me with my Japanese "bride" at
our "wedding" with 400 of our
closest Indian "friends."
Some experiences leave you
changed forever.
This complexity is slowly permeating society on the level of individuals. Of course the degree of access still varies dramatically, but even 50 years ago a Maasai was a Maasai was a Maasai. Today a "Maasai" could be a pastoralist in the wilderness with a spear and shuka unchanged from a 1000 year ago, or a bowtied waiter in a restaurant, or an international businessman in a three piece suit. Asking him if he's Maasai guarantees nothing else about his lifestyle, you have to explore him. While this is certainly a pity for the integrity of the cultural "box," it means that every individual is becoming a world unto themselves, a culture to be explored, an "exotic" with new thoughts and ideas and experiences.
(Tomorrow: Part 3: A Billion Wars?)


  1. I like the pictures you've added to this blog. I love clashing culture pics. Great writing and good observations.

  2. Caleb, This is really fascinating and thought provoking. Globalization has been written about a lot in the past few years, but actually, it's also a fact that it is speeding up in many directions and most people are not yet comfortable with all the ramifications especially if the "others" become the family next door instead of a faceless blob in a distant place (the one sewing your next T shirt, or whatever). Lots of thought paths to pursue - thanks for starting the conversation.